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[Digital first] means papers that have not yet appeared in print. See all

Peter Mouncey Blog

The paradox of memory in market research

05-02-2013
A new quarterly feature of the website is the reproduction of a ‘classic’ paper from the extensive IJMR archive.
The first classic paper that I’ve selected is ‘The paradox of memory in market research’, Henry Durant and Martin Simmons, first published in October 1968 in ‘Commentary’, the fore runner of IJMR.
 

So what makes this paper worth re-publishing? The reason is that Durant and Simmons raised concerns about accurately measuring recall in market research surveys – in this case, identifying the factors influencing purchases of FMCG products. You might say, so what – we know this already.

Isn’t neuroscience shedding light into the workings of the brain and warning us to take more care in research design? Well, is it? Last November, Rachel Kennedy in her Keynote Address at the 2012 Research Methods Forum cautioned researchers to take a caveat emptor approach when deciding on whether or not to rely on biometrics, or virtual shopping methods. As Brian Appleyard eloquently concluded in the Sunday Times magazine (30th October, 2011), ‘the human brain, people say, is the most complex thing in the universe. But its complexity is nothing next to that of the human mind’.

In other words, whilst neuroscience provides clues as to what happens in the brain in response to a stimulus, it tells us little or nothing about how a person interprets, or might respond to, the stimulus. Chris Barnham and Roy Langmaid both published papers in IJMR in 2012 raising concerns about whether qualitative research today recognised the impact of imperfections in memory, and identified how researchers might address this challenge.

Malcolm Gladwell cautioned researchers in ‘Blink’ about the fallibility of memory: ‘We’re a bit too quick to come up with explanations for things we don’t really have an explanation for…..There are times when we demand an explanation when an explanation isn’t possible’.And: ‘…people are ignorant of the things that affect their actions, yet they rarely feel ignorant. We need to accept our ignorance and say I don’t know more often’.

Durant and Simmons didn’t just raise the issues, they provided a blueprint to minimise the effect of imperfections in memory. In retail, technology has increasingly helped researchers capture purchase behaviour with schemes such as Clubcard and Nectar schemes creating more opportunities to track consumer behaviour.

However, as Max Kelly described at the 2012 Forum, there is often a gap between claimed behaviour from market research and real behaviour as measured through transaction data. What people think they will do, or even what they think they actually did, may not be reflected in what actually happens.

Philip Graves in ‘Consumer.ology’ accused market research of failing to capture correctly human behaviour, citing factors such as ignoring the context when undertaking research; asking people what they might do/buy, or probing respondents to recall in detail inconsequential purchasing decisions. Maybe mobile technology will help close the gap as, for example, used by MESH Planning.

I hope you enjoy our first ‘classic’ paper by two of the leading market researchers of their generation. Do the issues raised back in the 1960s, and the solutions described then, remain valid today? Comments, please.

Comments (1)

  • Anonymous | February 8, 2013 11:53 am

    Interesting post, Peter. At the risk of sounding immodest may I recommend my own IJMR contribution to this topic: Looking for the Emotional Unconscious in Advertising.International Journal of Market Vol 48 Issue 5

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